These are my favorite CDs released in 2016. My tastes run to Americana, roots, alt country and folk. In the case of close calls, I am likely to err on the side of the lesser-known performers who need more exposure. It is a loose top ten with no real effort made to order them.
The Wild Swan by Foy Vance
Every time I listen to Foy Vance, it feels like I'm one of the instruments playing my part. His songs vibrate in my chest both viscerally as well as emotionally. There's an exchange of exuberance. I can hear it in his performing. It's a tricky thing as a listener to assume exactly what part you play in the process but you can only hope he senses how much his music means.
The feeling's old.
Its been bought and sold.
Often lost is the awe it innately holds.
But songs still flow In the heat and cold.
The hunger, the harvest The stories told,
—Be Like You Belong
Traveling through America for much of his youth, Vance eventually settled down in Ireland. He has toured the world opening for Bonnie Raitt, Ed Sheeran and Sir Elton John. In late 2015, Foy became only the second artist signing with Gingerbread Man Records, a division of Atlantic Records started by Ed Sheeran. Elton John is the executive producer of "The Wild Swan."
Carl Perkins for the rock n roll.
Dr. John for the jockamo.
Little Richard for a Saturday night.
James Brown if you’re feelin outtasight.
Willie Nelson if you’re feelin low.
Aretha Franklin if you need some soul.
Play em loud but if you’re quiet and you’re brooding baby.
—Noam Chomsky Is a Soft Revolution
Although "The Wild Swan" may not be quite as good as his previous "Joy of Nothing," any distinction would be minuscule and nitpicking. Suffice it to say, it's a great CD. Get them both and let me know if I'm wrong.
I sit down by the water
And I glory at my host.
Let the rivers roll over like lovers.
Oh brothers and sisters and I
Good lord you know we need it most.
Our minds are tethered but our hearts are wild
In Bangor town County Down.
Rangers & Valentines by Trapper Schoepp
Trapper Schoepp captivates me. His songs make me want to laugh one minute and cry the next. They entice me to dance on occasion, and more often than not, sing along, but foremost, he makes me want to listen, and listen closely. The jangly melodies and his limber voice are infectious, but they sometimes belie provocative and compelling stories. He's often a wry quipster who sneaks some weight under the light surface. It makes me want to pay attention all the more.
I watched the news at nine.
Saw a car that could've been mine.
It was crushed like a can.
"Travel safe!" said the weatherman.
Schoepp is a Minnesota-born, Wisconsin-based singer-songwriter. "Rangers & Valentines" is his first record for Xtra Mile Recordings, a London label who discovered Schoepp through. recommendations from Frank Turner among others. Schoepp's first album was the unsung, but excellent "Run Engine Run" which he self-produced with his band, The Shades.
Every time he’d salute he’d look down at his
And every night he thought he saw her face in the sand.
One night he left his post, stumbled into the dark It only took her fourth step don’t even need a spark.
Don’t go my baby!
Schoepp identifies John Prine, Randy Newman, The Replacements, and Warren Zevon as influences. He's opened for The Wallflowers, The Jayhawks, and The Old 97's. A medical condition with his back had slowed his career development in recent years but he's back in top form with this new album.
I know there’s already a million songs
About how guys and girls can’t get long.
I’ve been seeing a girl I won’t name.
I sure hope it don’t end up the same.
She said she might study abroad, be independent.
—Talking Girlfriend Blues
Dream Anyway by Markus Rill and the Troublemakers
Rill's songs come at you head-on, but sometimes, they circle around and smack you in the back of the head. His voice has the gruff but clear resonance of classic Americana even if he is from Frankfurt, Germany. His songs translate equally as acoustic ballads or electric alt- country rock stompers. His musical styles encompass early rock, country blues, and all roots variations in between.
She's the one, smart as a whip.
She's the one, sunshine on her lips.
She's the one I long to caress.
The girl in the polka dot dress.
—The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress
Rill spent some years as a young songwriter in Austin, Texas. "Not only did I learn a lot about country music, the blues, about all sorts of roots music, about songwriting, and live performance, I also realized that to be an interesting artist, you have to be yourself. I have my own stories to tell and my own viewpoint to write from."
"Dream Anyway" won Rill the German Country Music Awards for Album Of The Year and for Singer Of The Year.
“If I can create the image of someone sitting home alone at night at his kitchen table, I don’t need to say whether he’s sitting in Texas or Bavaria. The emotion matters more than the location.”
When Amy asks me, 'what did you do yesterday?"
I look at my sweet Amy and I don't know what to say.
My body still is nimble but I can't win this race with time 'cause I'm losing,
I'm losing my mind.
—Losing my Mind
Finding this CD is a little tougher than most, but it's out there if you search. The download is available nearly everywhere. I also keep hoping that Markus and the Troublemakers might consider a U.S. tour someday.
And if our highest hopes and goals come through someday
the agnostic and the priest dream anyway dream anyway.
Oh-oh, dream anyway.
Midnight Motel by Jack Ingram
It was widely reported that Jack Ingram hadn't recorded a new record since 2009 because he was frustrated and depressed about record company interference and forced compromises in the recording and production of his albums. Ingram made "Midnight Motel" independently to have the creative freedom to write and record what he wanted. The strategy has resulted in some of his best work ever and, perhaps, his most solid album, beginning to end.
They say if you can't beat 'em join 'em.
What would I want to do that for?
I aint saying the world's out to get me.
I just ain't beating myself up anymore.
I ain't trying to save everybody.
—Feel Like Drinking Tonight
“It was really important to me at this point in my life to avoid thinking about any commercial decisions about the music,” explains Ingram. “Every night after my kids went to bed, I’d go into my music room and stay in there until about three or four, just working out the songs like I did at the beginning of my career. Or while on the road, sit up late at night writing in motel rooms.”
Don't fall in love
If you don't have a heart
That you're willing to break Right from the start.
There's nothing to fix
If there's nothing broken.
All you have to be
Is all you are to me.
—Nothing to Fix
"Midnight Motel was cut with Ingram and the musicians recording live in the same room, with a minimum of overdubbing. Many members of his long-time backup band, The Beat Up Ford Band participated when they were available along with Charlie Sexton sitting in on guitar and producer Jon Randall on multiple instruments.
Sometimes you cry when you're happy and you laugh when you're sad.
Sometimes you're good when you want to let the world know you're bad.
—It Can't Get Any Better Than This
Dori Freeman by Dori Freeman
Nothing about this polished set of impressive songs would suggest it was a debut album. Her voice is a singular mix, not quite country twang, not hill country or even top 40 pop, but something nestled right in between. Her songs match her voice in a similar singular collaboration.
You say you can’t save me
But I don’t want you to.
I'll be damned if I need any man
To come to my rescue.
Freeman is in her mid-twenties from a family of artists and musicians from Virginia. She carries those lessons from her lineage and renders them through the prism of her own individual reality.
What happened to your dreams?
What happened to mine?
You're wasting my love and I'm wasting your time.
I know you'd go back if you could.
And you'd leave me standing right there where I stood.
You'd leave me standing right there where I stood.
—Where I Stood
Doc Watson, The Louvin Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and Iris Dement were early influences. She's played guitar since she was fifteen. The work of Rufus Wainwright provided the inspiration her to write her first song.
I just can't stand it when somebody tells me "No."
I just can't let 'em walk away.
I may pretend that it don't matter if you go.
But I'd do anything to make you stay.
Tell me, tell me, tell me that you wanna be my man, my man, my man.
Sean McConnell by Sean McConnell
Although this CD is entitled as if it were a debut, this is far from McConnell's first CD. However, it may be his best total effort contending with his 2007 effort, "Cold Black Sky."
Crazy being back here.
Driving around this town.
I can't tell if I wanna build a shrine
Or just burn it to the ground.
Just burn it to the ground.
His elastic crying tenor sails like a rough glider with just enough rasp to carry rock and roll, soul, and folk. It can screech to staccato halts to punctuate his pointed lyrics like an exhausted preacher.
Oh, when I get so lost you can't find me.
Won't you remind me
That I've got my mothers heart
And I've got my father hands.
I've been baptized in the water
And I came up a music man.
And I'm a husband, I'm a father
I'm the product of desire
Between the guitar kid from Hudson
And the Queen of Saint Mary’s Choir.
—Queen of Saint Mary’s Choir
“From a very young age, I just knew that I was gonna spend my life making music,” Sean McConnell states. “I never really questioned it, so I just forged ahead and didn’t let anything stop me. When I look at this collection of songs, I see a lot of nostalgia, and looking back on sacred moments. I’m kind of nostalgic and reflective by nature."
Yeah, maybe life's not what I thought it'd be.
It's nothing like my childhood fantasies.
It's harder than I could've known
But higher than my hopes could've flown.
And better than I ever could've dreamed.
More villains and sad endings I suppose
But I'll take the thorns for this beautiful rose.
Down in a Hole by Kiefer Sutherland
I remember picking this up because it sounded like a curio and I had always been a fan of Sutherland's acting. I played it through once, thinking after every succeeding cut that it was not bad at all, much better than I expected given past very good actors attempts at being rockstars like Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp.
Sutherland himself has been quoted many times saying, "I promise you, every time I hear someone talk about an actor doing this, my eyes roll up into my head, too."
I've been searching for you all my life, looked so hard that I went blind.
There you were standing in front of me, right in front of me for all this time.
When my world would come undone, I'd call on you to provide.
And all those nights I spent laughing, there you were right by my side.
—I'll Do Anything
I set it aside, told some friends it was better than expected, and didn't think about it again until I was getting my Top CDs of 2016 together.
I gave it another listen, then another, then I couldn't stop. I kept finding more and more that I liked about it. He has a roots rock growl with a California air which he delivers with an unexpected precision and flair. The entire effort is built around enhancing the communication.
"I think the one thing I've come to understand is that, as a player or as a songwriter, my interest is really to try and tell a story, very much like I do as an actor," he explains. "It's an extension of that."
Let me tell you a story from the marrow of my bones.
Let me tell you a story that'll teach you how to roam.
Let me tell you a story but you ain't ever coming home.
Let me tell you a story hope you like being alone.
—All She Wrote
In 2002, Sutherland and Jude Cole, his long-time friend and the producer of this album, launched a small record label named Ironworks to record and distribute music by local musicians. When asked if he ever played in the studio, Sutherland replies, "Oh, yeah, late at night, when everyone's gone home."
Now, he also plays on stage with Cole and his band. They've done over 100 shows with more dates scheduled from California to New York and to Europe in the summer.
"For me, though, this is something that is absolutely imperative to what I want to do with the rest of my life."
When I woke up the sun shined through
And it never looked so bright.
Looking out I saw the sky was blue
And the clouds the perfect white,
I never felt hope this strong before.
No it never felt so right.
So Lord if you can hear me now
Get me through the night.
And good bye to the past.
It's time to start again.
I'll find a way.
Yeah I'll find a way.
Good bye at last.
I won't look back again.
No I'll find a way
To make me my best friend.
—-My Best Friend
Willow Springs by Michael McDermott
McDermott's eleventh album, "Willow Springs" is a welcome discovery because his website went dormant for awhile and I'd read about his personal and professional setbacks, but this album seems to signal a rebound of bright and resolute prospects.
“There was a real cacophony of change going on in my life at the time... being a new father, losing my own father, leaving the city for the country, dealing with sobriety, grief, death, mortality, shame and forgiveness. Willow Springs is the name of the place where I took refuge and had to confront a lot of things."
I've wandered through the wasteland for 40 days and nights,
But could never really see the light.
But with you I feel so strong.
Maybe it was you all along.
With an anguished rock and roll rasp, folksinger sensibilities, and literate lyrics, McDermott was called "...one of the best songwriters in the world and possibly the greatest undiscovered rock 'n roll talent of the last 20 years" by author Stephen King and several newspapers called him one of his generations greatest potential talents.
Take a look around.
It's like the whole damn town's about to blow.
Judas sat in fear, while we were sitting here waiting for Godot.
I've been thinking of you, it's what my mind tends to do when I'm alone.
All the seeds that I've planted -- man, nothing seems to grow.
—These Last Few Days
“My enthusiasm is only matched by my desire to continue to evolve as an artist,” McDermott insists.
Crossing Canyons, slaying dragons
As if the night was ours to take.
The weight of wanting, the fear of failure.
The fear it's all about to break.
Doubt is a deep well.
Hope is a carousel.
It spins until your faith's undone.
Hold on...what dreams may come.
—What Dreams May Come
I'm Not the Devil by Cody Jinks
Jinks' voice has some funky George Jones crossed with a little Glen Campbell lilt and some Billy Gibbons growl. He even kind of looks like a cross between the three. Despite a professed commitment to country, you get a flavor of his thrash metal past heading up a Fort Worth band named Unchecked Aggression. Now, he often tours with a backup band named the Tone Deaf Hippies.
"We look like a dirty-ass rock & roll band, but whenever people ask, I just tell them 'country.' One of the best compliments anyone can give me is, 'I don't like country music, but I really dig your stuff."
I'm not the devil you think that I am.
It ain't no excuse, but I'm just a man.
I slipped and I fell, it got outta hand.
But I'm not the devil you think that I am.
—I'm Not the Devil
This debut album garnered a lot of praise while reaching no. 4 on Billboard's Country Chart. Many reviews referred to Jinks as a rising star in "new country" or a pioneer of "future country."
I been wanderin' down the hallways.
Yep all roads just like some kid out skippin' school.
By the time that I was seventeen I figured I was done with all the rules.
I turn 35 this year, and I'm still runnin' hard.
For somethin' I can't see.
The only thing in life that's guaranteed: There are no guarantees.
Jinks sums up his prevailing musical philosophy as: "I just want it to be good music, really. That's the stuff that resonates."
Well I'm a nightmare that comes from your California dreamin'
With your bloodshot eyes thinkin' nothin's what it seeming.
I'm a Bradbury story, spreadin' like a fire from hell.
No I never met a lesson I didn't learn well.
I get wound up and found up in places you'll never see.
I was born to be a God fearin' song singin'
Good timin' son of a son of an SOB.
I never set out to hurt anybody, you'll see.
I just set out to chase that song that's chasin' me.
—Chase That Song
The Very Last Day by Parker Millsap
After listening to this talented youngster's three albums for what seems like a decade, it's nearly impossible to believe he's still barely 25 years-old. His sage voice and experience-laden songwriting imply a much older soul. He blends the fire and brimstone of a Pentecostal upbringing with the worldliness of a well-traveled sojourner.
Now I kneel at the altar.
A church of vacant pews In the rafters a chorus of crows.
They sing like a hymnal of rusted organ tunes.
They sing like the broken heart of one who knows.
“I like to set goals for myself that are impossible to reach,” he explains. “That way, I always have something to aim for, a better song, different characters, new stories. I just want to pay the bills and feed my dog, and maybe buy a new guitar every now and then. That’s all I need."
Maybe I'll have to walk through the fire
Balancing on a razor wire.
But I ain't afraid to weep.
I ain't afraid to suffer.
I ain't afraid to be a fool to be your lover.
One of the most amazing cuts on this album is "Heaven Sent," a heartbreaking request for explanation from a young gay man to his rigidly conservative father.
Raised me straight and raised me true.
Spent my days becoming you.
Sunday morning, evening too.
Sitting in your second pew.
Torn apart, my spirit's spent.
I fell in love on accident.
Wondered just what Jesus meant
When He said all love was Heaven-sent.
Millsap has also opened dates for Jason Isbell, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Lake Street Dive, Lucinda Williams and Shovels & Rope.
I wanna feel that Great Atomic Power
When it yields that final fiery shower.
Ain’t no shield can save you in that hour
But I won’t cower
When that eruption lays us all to waste.
Gonna clutch my heart and lift my face.
Watch that mushroom rushing up to space.
Gonna sing Amazing Grace.
—The Very Last Day
The Next Few -- Could Have Been Higher:
Lovers and Leavers by Hayes Carll
The Narrows by Grant Lee Phillips
American Band by Drive-By Truckers